I Love You Beth Cooper: Chris Columbus’ Comedy,

Writer-producer-director Chris Columbus has always been attracted to the comedy of the bizarre. The mega-hit “Gremlins,” one of Columbus’ first screenplays, concerns a cute little furry creature that is accidentally hit with a little water and, before long, the whole cute little town is on the verge of destruction from a horde of small but not-so-cute murderous monsters.

A few years later, Columbus helmed “Heartbreak Hotel,” his homage to Elvis, and worked with a young assistant director named Mark Radcliffe. They next collaborated on the global hit “Home Alone,” about an accidentally left behind cute little kid, who has to defend his home from two would-be burglars. Along the way, the two found they shared some of the same sensibilities when it came to filmmaking—funny and offbeat–and began to collaborate on other projects. The romantic comedy “Nine Months” brought aboard producer Michael Barnathan, to Columbus’ writing-producing-directing and Radcliffe’s producing.  The trio then joined forces to form the company 1492 Pictures.

From comedies to dramas to the screen adaptations of three of the most popular and widely read books in the world, Columbus found that he wanted to return to the director’s chair and began searching for his next project. When Barnathan noted, “You know, Chris, it’s a long time since you’ve been funny,” he realized that it had been a long time, indeed. Serendipitously, it was about that time that the first 100 pages of an as-yet-unpublished novel found its way to the offices of 1492 Pictures.  Its title was I Love You, Beth Cooper. It was funny and offbeat, with a decidedly bizarre tilt to the story of a lovelorn dork named Denis and the object of his affection, Beth–with a motley entourage in tow–spending graduation night fleeing together from Beth’s vengeful boyfriend.  It was love at first read.

Michael Barnathan observes, “The story of I Love You, Beth Cooper has real emotion and heart, which we’ve always responded to.” Mark Radcliffe says, “One of Chris’ strengths as a director has always been his ability to fuse comedy and emotion, and Beth Cooper has plenty of both.”

The author of the novel was Larry Doyle, whose ability to conjure the universal themes and pitfalls of the last days of high school belies his distance from the actual experience. The acutely observed and laugh-out-loud work was, according to Doyle, written as if he were in high school at the time (in the appropriate decade), and then the tale was embellished with the trappings of a post-millennial high school world. “The basic issues of being a teenager, figuring out who you are, where you fit, haven’t changed,” he says. “Out of the box, the characters look as if they’re going to act and behave in a certain way, but by the end of the movie, none of them is who you think they are.”

Two days after he began shopping the manuscript (as a 100-page sample), it had quickly reached the desks of some of Hollywood’s leading producers, where it was snatched up by the 1492 team.

For Doyle, it was a dream, literally: “The story came to me in a dream, where I imagined that I was giving my high school speech and, in it, I declared my love for this girl that I had a crush on in seventh grade.”

Columbus was drawn to the project because of the universality of the characters’ experiences, and because it’s essentially a love story: “Being a high school kid and dealing with those intense emotions – feeling love for the first time, questioning your identity, whether it’s your future or your sexual identity–for me is fascinating. We never have a more emotionally turbulent moment in our lives than our junior or senior year in high school. It just doesn’t get any more intense in terms of what we’re feeling about ourselves.”

Heading “I Love You,” Beth Cooper harkened back to his development, casting and directing of the first Harry Potter film; it was a chance to work with and nurture a group of fresh young actors. Columbus explains, “When they’re just starting out, actors have a sense of excitement and hunger and an eagerness to be in the movie. That kind of energy fuels the production. There are no star turns. Everyone is there to work. You can never recapture your own youth, but you can certainly tap into that creative energy that fuelled you 15 or 20 years ago. That was what I was hoping to do with this movie.”

In describing Beth Cooper, Columbus says, “The film is about two people whose lives cross at a time when they’re about to make an enormous leap forward. Denis’ leap forward is toward a future that’s extremely bright and filled with the potential for success. Beth’s future is not so certain. In a way, she may have reached her pinnacle in high school. I found that to be an interesting moment, when these two come together.”

Lucky for the director, the perfect Beth Cooper–Hayden Panettiere, from the hit television series Heroes – had already expressed interest in the project. Her first meeting with Columbus made an immediate and happily positive impression on him: as soon as Panettiere entered the room, Chris turned to Michael Barnathan and said, “She’s a big movie star.”

What drew Panettiere to the film was the layered character of Beth, which afforded her the opportunity to turn her Heroes cheerleader/superhero image on its head: “Beth’s character goes through a definite change. In the beginning, you don’t know her, but you don’t like her, either. She’s the popular girl. She comes off a bit rough around the edges, but as you get to know her, you realize that it’s because she thinks the rest of her life, after high school, is going to be completely ordinary. She isn’t really good at anything. She doesn’t have a talent. She’s not particularly smart and she isn’t good in school. She isn’t going to get into a good college, and she can’t even afford to go to a community college…so high school is her world. That is where she thrives, and that’s all she knows.”

Columbus thought she was perfect for the role: “I knew she was a very gifted dramatic actress, but I had no idea she was so unbelievably talented in terms of comedy. She brings an incredible sense of comic timing.”

Panettiere explains the supposed disconnect between the story being told in I Love You, Beth Cooper and the way in which it’s told: “Every time I describe the plotline in the movie and how the characters come together for this journey, it always sounds a bit like a drama, even though it’s a very funny comedy. To me, that shows that it’s a comedy that really has a heart behind it. We’re basically running through the entire movie the whole night to get away from my psychotic boyfriend, who’s intent on destroying Denis because of what he said. But so much happens–we drive crazy, we drink a little, we end up in the woods, and then at this fancy graduation party, then a cabin on the lake – it’s really so funny. At one point, I drive a Hummer through the front of a house! And it all ends with cops. So that’s not such a drama, is it?”